The Future of Existential Psychology: The View From an Existential Bywater

Fishing in the River Garry Gravels .uk   314334 - The Future of Existential Psychology: The View From an Existential Bywater

If you are a psychologist, you can expect to make about $60,000 a year in practice, more or less whatever is your practice, on average. If you are in academics, you are likely to make a lot less. As schools go for-profit or need to compete with schools that are for-profit, more and more faculty find themselves stuck outside the tenure track, outside reputable universities. A member of adjunct faculty can be paid substantially less and, in addition, save money on benefits and insurance costs.

Highway faculty, or people who work as adjuncts at multiple universities, might make $40,000 a year while working full time, about 2/3 of the going rate for a psychologist otherwise.

Some specialties are seen as more modern or more profitable than others. Industrial/Organizational psychologists can earn $100k in their first year. Neuropsychologists can make a lot of money working court cases, especially lawsuits.

Most problematic is that the nature/nurture debate, while settled science and a ridiculous argument for the modern age, has been quietly co-opted. The secret war now is increasingly medicalizing not only psychological distress but also normal human experiences for profit. The DSM makes most of the American Psychiatric Association’s money for them. Psychotropic medication is the most profitable segment of the for-profit pharmaceutical industry. Arguments that not everything can or should be treated with a pill fall on deaf ears. Massive outrage and action on the part of mental health professionals in 2012 resulted in almost no changes to the latest edition of the DSM due out this year and are unlikely to do so.

Meanwhile, money spent on lobbying the government has a higher rate of return than any rate of return for any other investment except winning lottery tickets. I have tried many times to buy a winning one and have not yet had any luck with this. In some cases, the rate of return can be 22,000% (Alexander, Mazza, & Scholz, 2013). You are reading that correctly: one dollar spent on lobbying can earn an additional $220 over the course of a year.

For profit schools have money to spend on lobbying the government for special favors and considerations and especially immunity from regulation. Not-for-profit schools are often staffed by state employees, such as community colleges, and are not permitted to lobby the government in any way as this is a conflict of interest. Non-state sponsored private universities are stuck competing for students with schools that increasingly market themselves and sell education as an investment in a career. Statistics showing how much more one can expect to earn with a degree than without—lacking any mention that the quality of the degree matters—are everywhere. Students, perhaps rightly, now expect their degrees to help them earn money.

So profit schools hire mostly people who are in the apparently most profitable fields or, worse, pay doctors and masters level people to be paper-grading technicians. Post the messages, stick to the script, input nothing into the material. To compete, other schools have to staff the profitable or popular specialties, too. Visit the job listings on, for example,, and see how many of the openings are for humanistic or existential psychologists. Only a handful of universities offer so much as a class, and never mind a degree, in these fields of study.

In this economy, there is little room for a specialty such as ours. Existential psychology is a bit of a bywater. While the field has very much to offer, it is unlikely our voices will ever be heard by the larger community or, if heard, heeded. The simple and painful truth is that there is not much money to be made reminding people of their mortality and offering them deeper connections, either to others or their shadow sides.

In this time and place, if we experience pain, we take a pill for it. We don’t meditate on the pain to get its flavor. We don’t seek out a deep and lasting relationship to help us discover our being.

Existential psychology is likely to always remain a backwater, a side-stream, a place nobody visits much. We have enjoyed some increased popularity but only relative to our small numbers, and mostly overseas. China seems especially receptive to our overtures. We have had some success luring a few people from other fields into our little idyll. Beyond that, we are not becoming the foundation on which other therapies are built as we once hoped, and therapy itself, of any variety, is dying out. Replaced with short-term fixes and pills of dubious effectiveness.

Things could get better. We’ve made a lot of noise lately. We could keep making that noise. More, we could take up a collection and hire some lobbyists and advertisers, help save therapy first and then depth therapies second and then our specific brands of therapy once those other things have a place in America once more. But since most of us aren’t making scads of money selling quick-fixes and division dues scarcely pay the rent, these things remain unlikely. Given also our disdain for commercialism, influence, glad-handing, and profiteering, this is all doubly unlikely.

And I, for one, am content. It is the need to be popular and the need to make money that leads one off in pursuit of the hollow things. Here in my little existential bywater, I have everything I really need. Companions who also don’t chase the almighty dollar, for one. Things people can turn to, alternatives when all the quick fixes and pills and manualized therapies have proven hollow, for another. Existential therapy might grow a little or shrink a little, but there will always be a need for small bands of eccentrics who agitate from the sidelines.


R. M. Alexander, S. W. Mazza, & S. Scholz (2009, April 8). “Measuring Rates of Return for Lobbying Expenditures: An Empirical Case Study of Tax Breaks for Multinational Corporations.” Journal of Law and Politics, 25 (401).

— Jason Dias

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